“Untranslatable” is a label assigned to terms in one language for which there is no single-word counterpart in other languages (or, more often than not, in English). They express ideas or emotions that other languages do not identify with a name, although the concepts may not be unfamiliar to speakers of those languages. When potential counterparts are advanced in translation, there are always subtle differences left, nuances that only a native speaker can truly understand and explain. Even though such terms doubtlessly pose a challenge to translators and, notably, interpreters, their actual untranslatability is debatable, as it is straightforward that quality translation does not entail word-count equivalence. Every language has words the exact meaning of which is not reflected in a single lexical unit in several other languages, but this does not necessarily render translation difficult or impossible. Furthermore, it is unreasonable to assume that one language can express human cognition in its entirety. Each language integrates terms or ideas that its speakers need at some point in history and may then discard them in the course of its evolution.

In addition, languages mirror the collective memory and cultural representations of their communities, reflecting perceptions, beliefs, feelings, attitudes, relations and experiences in a way that cannot be strictly universal. Lexical differences and gaps are a direct outcome. Consequently, translators often choose to expand on a definition that is consistent with the target language and with the awareness of its speakers. This is why we may be surprised to encounter a whole sentence proposed as the semantic counterpart of a single word. There are manifold “untranslatable” terms originating all over the world, from the solemn to the hilarious, from the profound to the abrupt, from the transparent to the delightfully quirky. Some are difficult to translate because they embody an entire culture, whereas others have meanings which are too specific to be prevalent. All of them, however, are strangely appealing and perplexing to some extent, and have the potential to fascinate at a glance, particularly because they disclose so much about the concerns and fundamentals of other cultures. You may discover hereunder ten of the most scrutinized world-famous “untranslatable” words. Hopefully you will recognize concepts you needed to verbalize at some point or terms you would like to adopt in your own language. Fathom their charm and internalize their singularity as your mind travels and expands.

Duende (Spanish)

This enchanting Spanish word, which recently migrated to English, roughly designates a “heightened state of emotion, expression and authenticity”, a “climactic show of spirit” characteristic of flamenco dancing or bull-fighting. It is a mysterious and ineffable lure, the power by which a work of art can genuinely move someone, but also the physical and emotional response to a vivid artistic performance, since the duede seizes both the artist and the audience. Originally, duende was a generic name (coined from duen de casa – home owner) for fairy- or goblin-like creatures in Iberian and Latin American mythology, usually mischievous, which take possession of humans and make them experience awe before natural surroundings. In his 1933 lecture Teoria y juego del duende (Theory and Play of the Duende), Federico García Lorca developed a new meaning of duende, describing it in the words of Goethe: “the mysterious power that we all feel, but that no philosopher could explain”. According to Lorca, this is a demonic earth spirit that confronts artists with death and helps them create and convey breathtaking, almost unbearably intense moments. It differs from grace or the muse in that the artist does not instantly surrender to the duende, but has to fight it dramatically, and in the effect it has on the audience, allowing it to understand art spontaneously, thus becoming “the very dearest thing that life can offer the intellectual”. It always brings along a radical change, miracle-like novelty, and an “almost religious enthusiasm”. For the artist, it is not related to ability, but to a living style, spontaneity, cultural ancestry, and emotional darkness.1 Filotimo (Greek) Also spelled philotimo (Greek ????????), it literally means ‘friend of honor’, but involves a complex set of virtues and manifold emotions, deeply ingrained in Greek culture and identity, which make it intensely evocative and therefore hard to translate. Filotimo is the expected behavior of any Greek, the desirable way of life, associated with acts of generosity and sacrifice for one’s family, community and society without expecting anything in return; it is inbred and cannot be taught. It comprises unconditional love and respect toward parents and friends, gratitude for any small kindness, admiration for one’s ancestors and heritage, honor, dignity and courage, pride in being Greek transposed into a sense of duty to the country. It also involves a deep personal freedom which makes one stand strong and dignified, demanding respect in any circumstances. All these virtues are part of filotimo, but the concept is more than the sum of its parts, it implies something that Sophocles referred to as a mystery, the essence of being Greek. In the words of Thales of Miletus, “Filotimo to the Greek is like breathing. A Greek is not a Greek without it. He might as well not be alive.”

Fremdschämen (German)

The verb fremdschämen signifies feeling embarrassed for or on behalf of someone who should be ashamed but is not. Its components are the adjective fremd (foreign, other, external) and the reflexive verb schämen (to be or feel ashamed), but the term does not just refer to vicarious embarrassment, considering there is an additional implication: the other person does not realize they are in a shameful situation, often because of ignorance, and that they should be embarrassed for themselves. This type of embarrassment is experienced when the other’s actions do not directly affect one or one’s image, it is simply an empathetic process: one is touched by the other’s condition even if one is a mere witness thereof. Fremdschämen is a fairly new word in German, used in colloquial language and frequently associated with talent shows and the way judges and viewers relate to certain performances on stage, which are so ridiculous that they stop being entertaining, making one feel utterly uncomfortable and ask oneself how the protagonists can be unaware of their derisory circumstances. Since German schadenfreude, the delight in another’s misfortune, already entered the English language, its positive, sympathetic counterpart fremdschämen, currently gaining online popularity, is expected to be adopted as well.

Ilunga (Tshiluba)

Ilunga is an elegantly succinct term famous for its untranslatability: it was chosen as the most untranslatable word in the world in a 2004 survey carried out by Translation Today among 1000 linguists. It designates “a person ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time”. Impressive in the complexity of its meaning, ilunga captures three distinct types of emotion in a single lexical unit. It does not simply refer to a ‘two-time forgiver’, but represents a gradual change of attitude – three phases on the way to intolerance, each influencing the next. Tshiluba (also known as Luba Kasai) is a Bantu language, one of the four national languages in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, spoken by about 6 million people. In the DR Congo, Ilunga is also a common family name.

Inat (Serbian)

Defined as “an attitude of proud defiance, stubbornness and self-preservation – sometimes to the detriment of everyone else or even oneself”, ????? is a core part of Serbian culture and mentality. It is argued to be the result of the last five centuries of Balkan conflicts, including the Ottoman rule, during which the Serbian character was formed out of persecution and frustration while people fought to defend their land, identity or religion; the word itself comes from Turkish, where it means ‘persistence’. Inat implies defying for the sake of defiance or doing things simply because they are forbidden. This kind of demeanor makes one “cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face” or harm somebody while deliberately harming oneself, and is said to be a national trait in contemporary Serbia as well. This emotionally complex concept reunites both positive and negative aspects: it holds people together, motivating them under adversity, but at the same time it nurtures conflict within the community, as illustrated by the Serbian saying translated as “May the neighbor’s cow die”. Thus, it is inat which explains both Serbs’ proud and composed resistance under NATO bombing during the Kosovo war, and their belligerence in controlling the Balkan region.

Jayus (Indonesian)

This is a slang term spreading swiftly in major Indonesian cities, but also reaching Malaysian and Tagalog. It refers to “a joke so poorly told and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh” or to a person who tells such jokes. This curious type of humor stems not from the corny joke itself, but from the person’s failure to convey the punch line, a situation so common that it is surprising it is not captured in a word. Jayus differs from what the English call ‘anti-jokes’ in that the comic effect of the latter only resides in the irony of not hearing the expected funny ending, whereas in the case of this useful Indonesian term it is the joke-teller’s style which has a crucial role in rendering humor. The origin of the word appears to be a story the main figure of which, a teacher named Jayus, always makes awkward, humorless jokes. His students endeavor to laugh politely every time, and before long they do not laugh with him, but at him, specifically at the way in which Jayus manages to tell such odd, embarrassingly dull anecdotes. In slang, his name became a common noun illustrating such situations.

Litost (Czech)

Litost is the title of Part Five in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Czech-born Milan Kundera, who defines it as “a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery”. This state overwhelms the student in the novel, who realizes that what he had interpreted as Krystyna’s immense love for him was actually her fear of pregnancy. As presented in the narrative, it consists of a feeling of imperfection, humiliation, despair about oneself and one’s life, but also a certain delight obtained when persisting in failure. In romantic relationships, litost originates in the absence of an absolute identity with one’s partner. It is said to characterize youth, as experience turns imperfection and agony into routine. The devastating suffering also triggers an urge for revenge – a desire to make the tormenter as wretched as oneself -, and the hypocrisy of exposing the reasons of such revenge as pure and benevolent. The resonance and untranslatability of litost are confirmed by Kundera himself: “Its first syllable, which is long and stressed, sounds like the wail of an abandoned dog. As for the meaning of this word, I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it.

Mamihlapinatapai (Yagán)

Listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as the “most succinct word”, this exquisite compound comes from Yagán, one of the indigenous languages of Terra del Fuego, now virtually extinct as there is only one native speaker left in the world. Also spelled mamihlapinatapei, it designates “the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start”; each wishes the other would take the initiative and do what is expected from both. As the term suggests mutual urging in expressive silence, an apposite counterpart proposed for it is “eye-contact implying ‘after you…’”. Mamihlapinatapai consists of the reflexive/passive prefix ma- (mam- before a vowel), the root ihlapi (meaning ‘to be at a loss as what to do next’), the stative suffix -n, an achievement suffix -ata, and the dual suffix -apai, which in conjunction with reflexive ma- has a reciprocal sense. The term is used in game theory in association with the volunteer’s dilemma, where two or more players are faced with a choice: either make a small sacrifice for the common benefit or become a free rider. Mamihlapinatapei is also the title of a 2004 song by American singer-songwriter Ronny Cox, who provides a rhyming definition of the word: We can’t say what’s in our hearts / Our minds keep saying “Is this smart?” / But our eyes ask “Can’t we start?” / Mamihlapinatapei.

Serendipity (English)

Voted among the ten English words hardest to translate, serendipity is an “aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident”. The term was first used by Horace Walpole in a 1754 letter to Horace Mann, where he describes a heraldic discovery as “of that kind which I call Serendipity”. Walpole maintains that he coined this noun from the fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, published in Venice in 1557; its heroes, who travel around Serendib, an old Arabic name for Sri Lanka, “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”. Serendipity became known in the 19th century, when Walpole’s correspondence was published, and gained popularity in the second half of the 20th century. In 2000 it was the tenth most popular name of pleasure boats in the U.S., and the top favorite word at the London Festival of Literature. The concept has a whole book dedicated to it: The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity studies its origins and uses, developing the theory of serendipity as a scientific method and highlighting the importance of the unintended outcomes of intended actions. The authors argue that, according to Walpole’s description, serendipitous findings are not necessarily valuable as some modern dictionaries assume. Furthermore, Walpole’s definition contains an important component which is frequently omitted in current usage and which is critical in the scientific method: the acute discernment needed in order to be able to reach a noteworthy conclusion by relating apparently uninteresting data. It is not mere luck or accidental discovery, as the serendipiter is looking for something else. In sociology, the serendipity pattern refers to the experience of observing “an unanticipated, anomalous and strategic datum” which leads to theory creation or extension. The sociological use of serendipity led to its adoption in many languages in which adaptation was easier than translation (e.g., French sérendipité, German Serendipität).

Toska (Russian)

English translation attempts for ????? include depression, melancholy, yearning, boredom or nostalgia. However, the Russian noun blends all these states, and has the meaning of each at the same time; depending on context, one component may become more prominent than the others. Essentially, it refers to the anguish felt when something that is dearly loved is missing, and felt as intangible, which creates a distinctly nostalgic, poetic shade of meaning. It also conveys an intense pervasive feeling of emptiness, with implications of indefiniteness and inexplicability. Its most famous definition is provided by Vladimir Nabokov in his translation and commentary for Alexander Pushkin’s epic of the Russian soul, Eugene Onegin: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, lovesickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.” Nabokov also mentions that toska was one of Pushkin’s favorite words. In fact, this multi-faceted, unitary concept has been characterized as “a key to the Russian soul”, a prime representative of Russian culture. It is closely associated to the socalled Russian national type: the “eternal seeker”, with a “predilection for the infinite” and a “capacity for the endurance of suffering”. Toska is an everyday word in Russian, used much more often than any of its English counterparts, and its beauty and nobility are widely revered.


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